Elsie MacGill: Flying under the radar

How did I not know about Elsie MacGill? 

There we were on Parliament Hill last September for the commemoration of the Battle of Britain. As if to belie the horrors of war and the sorrow of lives lost, brilliant sun shone down on Ottawa, Canada that day. Gentle breezes rippled the Governor General’s standard flying from the Peace Tower.


Vintage aircraft, including a Lancaster Bomber,thundered overhead.


The Snowbirds flew in missing man formation. Chills.


And then we strolled by the Hawker Hurricane aircraft on display on the vast lawn and read this sign.


Elsie MacGill, a Canadian, was the world’s first female aeronautical engineer, and a woman who supervised Hurricane production in the 1940s. How did I not know about her?

I did more research. As a child growing up in Vancouver, Elsie took drawing lessons from Emily Carr. Talk about inspiration. Elsie earned degrees from the University of Toronto, the University of Michigan and MIT. In fact, she was the first woman in North America to earn a Masters in Aeronautical Engineering.

Before her graduation, she contracted polio and was told she would never walk again. She was determined though, and she learned to walk with the help of two metal canes.

While using those canes, she went on to become the world’s first female aircraft designer. She co-authored the report from the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. She became a member of the Order of Canada.

How did I not know about Elsie MacGill? Somehow she managed to fly under the radar.

I imagine her in the Canadian Car and Foundry factory in Thunder Bay (then Fort William) surrounded by metallic clanging, blazes of welding and the haze of smoke that hung in offices in her day. I picture her making her way to meetings with the help of two canes, somehow managing to command respect despite her gender and a physical challenge. I cannot help but feel awe and respect for doing what she did at the time she did it.

She wasn’t on the curriculum when I went to school. She needs to be. She’s my new Canadian hero.


About Arlene Somerton Smith

Writer, laughing thinker, miner of inspirational insights, sports fan, and community volunteer

Posted on January 26, 2016, in Arlene Smith, Arlene Somerton Smith, Inspiration, Living life to the fullest, Nostalgia and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Great photos!

  2. Thanks for the history lesson Arlene. Wow! what a courageous woman.

  3. Linda Crane Williams

    Hi Arlene

    Great find Arlene! How interesting to learn about Elsie MacGill? She is truly missing from the list of great women and should be in our classroom history books. Does a new book need to be written??

    Serendipitously , the month, Canada’s History Magazine published an article entitled “20 Great Women”, which profiles Emily Carr, Madeleine Parent, Lucy Maude Montgomery, Nellie McClung, Gabrielle Roy and other great women who have contributed to Canada.

    The publication is requesting submissions about other notable women for future issues at http://www.CanadasHistory.ca/GreatWomen

    (Adrienne Clarkson and Charlotte Gray were among the women judges and contributors on this year’s judging panel.)

    With great admiration,

    Linda Williams


  4. Thank you for sharing this. She wasn’t on the curriculum in Fort William either where I went to school. The Canadian Car Plant is the reason my family moved from Saskatchewan. My dad worked at the plant. This is the first time I’ve heard this amazing woman’s name.

  5. David Walters, Lethbridge Alberta

    Wow, what a great story. I wish I had time to research and write it. My doctoral dissertation at the University of Montana was a biography of Dr. Frank B Wynn, (1860-1922) a physician medical education leader, outdoor enthusiast and early conservationist in the USA. I really enjoyed doing the research but it was a lot of work. I hope someone else is interested enough to write the Elizabeth MacGill story, otherwise I might have to try to tackle the job. It wouldn’t be right to leave her story unwritten.

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